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Like electric guitars, electric harps are based on their acoustic originals. There are both solid-body and hollow body electro-acoustic models available. True electric harps have a solid body versus a hollow body electro-acoustic harp, which can be played either acoustically or electronically. A true electric solid-body harp cannot be played acoustically since it has no hollow soundbox, and must be amplified when played.
Alan Stivell writes in his book Telenn, la harpe bretonne of his first dreams of electric harps going back to the late 1950s. He designed and had made a solid body (after different electric-acoustic harps) electric harp at the turn of the 1970s–80s, about the same time as Rudiger Oppermann. Alan Stivell later (early 80s) had a meeting with Joel Garnier who decided to create a model. Alan Stivell went on independently to design and have different single models been made with Leo Goas-Straajer (before the Camac–Alan Stivell last experiment). The first such commercially manufactured instrument was made by Camac, also helped later by the request of jazz-pop harpist Deborah Henson-Conant. The result looked like a light framed Celtic-style harp, but each string had a crystal (Piezo) pickup at its base. They can be plugged into various amplification systems, and players are able to use effects pedals similarly to electric guitar players. Another part of Henson-Conant's request was that she should be able to move around the stage with the harp, and thus the smaller electric harps usually include a system to strap the harp to one's body.
Solid-body electric harps are usually lever harps, though solid body pedal harps have also been built. Since the cost of a pedal harp is so high, it is more economical for a harpist to purchase an electro-acoustic model of pedal harp, as it can also be played without amplification.
An electro-acoustic harp looks nearly identical to a regular acoustic harp, whether lever or pedal. It has piezo pickups at the base of each string, and some also contain a separate microphone inside the soundbox, enabling the harpist to mix the signals from both kinds of pickups to produce special effects. Often such harps include an onboard preamplifier. One of the most famous electro-acoustic pedal harp models is Camac's "Big Blue", finished in a striking electric blue colour.
Developments and variations
The Lyon and Healy electric and electro-acoustic harps are built first on the quality of the traditional Lyon and Healy harp. In the development of the initial electric harp, there was an effort to mimic the acoustic sound. While this sound may not be ideal (from a frequency standpoint), it is the sound that most characterizes what the classically trained harpist hears and expects. It was assumed that the sound would come from the individual transducers and the string, with minimal influence of the sounding board. Therefore, the board was thickened to provide less resonance and less interference of pedal noise. The sound was better than using traditional on-board microphones, but, again, not ideal for all settings. Following much input from performers, Lyon and Healy, with the assistance of Susan Mazer and several other harpists including Greg Buchanan and Harvi Griffin, developed the electro-acoustic harp, which retained the thin resonant sounding board, playable acoustically, with individual transducers that would necessarily integrate all vibrations from the board and the string.
Not unlike the process of moving from the acoustic piano to the electric and eventually digital piano, the traditional harp being transformed by innovative amplification technologies, began in the 1950s with the late Casper Reardon and later, in the 70s, by Lloyd Lindroth. Lindroth integrated many electronic effects including distortion, digital delay, and reverb. At the time, it was new for guitars, let alone harps. Concurrently, Gail Laughton used electronic techniques in his classic recording of Harps of the Ancient Temples, foreshadowing the use of electronic effects to enhance live performance.
In the late 20th century instrument builder and American musician Robert Grawi created an electric double harp-lute based on the West African kora but strung and tuned differently. The gravikord is a light ergonomically designed instrument made of modern materials mostly stainless steel tubing. It is a double harp that has 24 strings evenly divided in two ranks arrayed on a free standing "Vee" shaped bridge made of synthetic material including an integral piezo-electric sensor. The tuning of the gravikord is an extended version of the "G" major / "E" minor tuning system of the Hugh Tracey kalimba while its overall physical structure is derived from the African kora. Tones rise in a strictly alternate left right hand symmetry familiar to any thumb piano player, so that tunes and techniques learned on these instruments can be directly played on the gravikord. It was created to enable easier playing of complex African cross rhythms on an African derived modern electro-acoustic harp.
Susan Mazer, with audiophile sound engineer Ron Robinson, developed a custom pre-amp for the Lyon and Healy electro-acoustic harp brought further clarity to the amplified harp sound. In addition, she developed a technique of playing the bass on the classical concert harp that had previously not been possible because of the excessive reverberation in the lower-end of the electroacoustic harp. This pre-amp has not been brought to market due to costs of development and concern for end-user pricing. Roberto Perera performs original Latin rock and jazz, and smooth jazz also on the amplified Peruvian Harp.
The MIDI harp possesses a piezo transducer that touches each string, allowing an electrical current to escape. The piezo pickup then outputs a current that corresponds to the vibration when the string is plucked. Once this occurs, the MIDI harp’s microprocessor that converts the analog signal to digital instruction devises a MIDI message that is sent by means of the MIDI-out port. The laser harp is a harp-shaped electronic instrument with laser beams instead of strings, triggered by MIDI.
- 4 Girls 4 Harps play on both pearlescent electric harps and Salvi concert harps.
- Athy (harpist), Atilio Adrían Matteucci, electric harpist from Argentina, composer, performs on a Blue Light Camac electric harp and plays his own music, his compositions are Atonal, Dark, Impressionist, Dramatic, and experimental.
- Deborah Henson-Conant performs on a solid body Camac electric harp, as well as amplified and regular pedal harps. Her style is mostly jazz, blues, and pop.
- Camille and Kennerly Kitt, electric harp duo, The Harp Twins, perform and arrange rock/pop on Lyon and Healy Silhouette solid body electric harps, as well as Camac electro-acoustic concert grand pedal harps.
- Rüdiger Oppermann performs on his self-made electric harps.
- Zeena Parkins plays and composes avant-garde and experimental music. Played on several Björk albums and tours.
- Roberto Perera, original Latin jazz on the amplified Peruvian harp.
- Alan Stivell performs on his own designed electric harps (since early 80s).
- Andreas Vollenweider plays New Age and pop style music.
- Enki Bello, Colombian acoustic and electric harpist, singer and composer.